Growing up in a Vermont farming town, May Futrell formed a close bond with her grandparents. All four lived nearby, happy and healthy. Their presence and their love for her, she says today, were among the greatest influences in her life: “One grandfather especially was a big influence on me. I think that as a young person, if you have a good experience with your grandparents, as I did, you emerge with a positive view of aging.”
So it came as a shock to her several years later as a young nursing student on hospital duty when she witnessed the neglect of elderly patients. This struck her deeply and ultimately defined her career. Her enthusiasm for caring for the elderly has been, and always will be, a goal she has worked toward for close to forty years.
“Everyone loves children—maternity nursing has always been a popular specialty. But that’s not where the greatest need lies. We’re not getting more children, we’re getting more older people. And we need more educated nurses to care for them.”
By the 1960s, Futrell earned her master’s degree in nursing from Columbia and was teaching nursing while also taking courses at Boston University. She began her career at UMass Lowell as a member of the nursing faculty in the fall of 1970. During her thirty-year tenure, she served as chair of the School of Nursing for 23 years before retiring in 2005.
Due to the direct efforts of Futrell, the University received government funding in 1975 to implement a program to educate gerontological nurse practitioners (GNPs) at the master’s-degree level. It was the first graduate program in the U.S. to educate primary-care GNPs.
May Futrell has made a difference in too many lives to count: family, friends, students, faculty, the elderly, the recipients of her scholarships, the readers of her works. Her work continues through the May Futrell Scholarship endowment fund that helps graduate students pursue their degrees full time.
Even when she’s home, she’s seldom still for long. Whether it’s volunteer work at the Firehouse Theatre in Newburyport, where she lives, or any of the lists of services she continues to perform for UMass Lowell—editing her publications, interviewing faculty applicants, serving on the department’s advisory board—she is rarely, and very reluctantly, idle.
“I like to stay useful, I like to stay active, even though it can be harder these days. I've been very lucky. Ever since I woke up from a tonsillectomy operation at the age of sixteen, and saw the nurse standing over me, and said to myself, ‘That’s it!’ That’s what I want to be! — I've known what I was meant to do in the world. And I've done it. And I’ll just keep doing whatever I can, as long as I can. Because there’s no use at all in just sitting around.”